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Appreciating Anwar Ibrahim

Response to 2024 Gareth Evans Oration, 'Navigating Geopolitical Currents: Malaysia and Australia's Pivotal Role in the Asia-Pacific', by the Hon Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Prime Minister of Malaysia, Australian National University, 7 March 2024

What an honour and a pleasure for all of us it has been to listen to this wonderful Oration by my old colleague and friend Anwar Ibrahim. Not least for me: normally one has to wait until one has passed life’s final checkout before having anything named after you, so I am deeply grateful to ANU for giving me this opportunity while I am still alive to enjoy a small cross-section of my obituaries – albeit a little more accurate, and less hagiographic, than I might have hoped for from Anwar!

Back in those long-ago days when I was Foreign Minister, you were Malaysia’s Finance Minister and Deputy PM, and I was still on speaking terms with Rupert Murdoch, I remember telling Rupert, at a function we were all attending in Davos, that you were the smartest thing on two-legs in Asia – and seeing him immediately rush off to button-hole you accordingly.

I’ve never had cause to regret that description, and you’ve certainly shown today that you haven’t lost your touch. Intellectual political leaders are a pretty rare breed, and the story of how you overcame the barriers to high office posed both by your intelligence and your decency is a truly extraordinary one.

Always with the total support of your wonderful wife Wan Azizah, who we are also delighted to welcome here today, you have careened over the last forty years from street protests to the centre of power, then back to street protest, legal persecution, custodial torture, repression, then finally, triumphantly, ground your way back to high politics and ultimately the apex of power. I’m in awe, and I think we are all in awe.

No-one who has any sense of the continuing complexities of Malaysian domestic politics will underestimate the degree of difficulty involved for you in walking that tightrope in government, and implementing all the reform strategies to which you remain manifestly so intellectually and emotionally committed, and we wish you well for the battles that lie ahead.

Your Oration today has of course been primarily about walking another tightrope, an international one – one with which all the rest of us in the region are acutely familiar – between our two neighbourhood giants, China and the United States. Although what you have been saying in Melbourne earlier this week, and have said again today, has been generating – and no doubt will continue to generate – some rather over-excited commentary from various quarters, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that you have the balance pretty much exactly right.

We all have to recognize that China is a massive economic and military power wanting its own space and influence, that it is not going away, and that while we welcome the continuing presence of the US in the region its uncontested primacy simply cannot be sustained.

As Penny Wong has put it – and how privileged we have been to have our stellar Foreign Minister join us to introduce you as she celebrates today becoming Australia’s longest serving female Cabinet Minister – what we need in the Indo-Pacific is a region in which 'no country dominates, and no country is dominated'.

I believe that is an aspiration around which all the rest of us, in ASEAN and Australia and beyond can genuinely unite, although – as you have said – each of us will articulate our national interests in different ways. No one wants war, no-one wants trade war, and no-one of us want to sacrifice our sovereign independence as we wrestle with the competing pressures we are all feeling.

I think we can and should unite, in particular, in calling insistently on China and the United States to enter into a new détente – of the kind which calmed passions between the US and Soviet Union in the last decades of the Cold War – in which both sides pledge to treat each other as mutually respectful equals, disagreeing where they must but cooperating where they can, and above all pledging to resolve their differences peacefully.

Both Malaysia and Australia, as influential middle powers with a long record of working cooperatively together, can play important roles in that cause. What we have heard from you today, Anwar, is a voice of clarity, principle and moderation, and long may that voice be heard.

So thank you for all that you have stood for and accomplished, and will continue to; thank you for visiting us here at ANU; thank you for doing me the honour of delivering this Oration; and thank you for now submitting yourself to some interrogation from this very large audience, who have obviously appreciated your presence and presentation here today just as much as I have.